The Senate on Tuesday approved a House-Senate compromise authorizing $302.5 billion in fiscal 1986 defense spending, but final congressional approval was delayed until September by angry House Democrats who said they were betrayed by their own negotiators as well as by President Reagan.
The Senate voted 94 to 5 in favor of the defense compromise--the product of more than two weeks of closed-door negotiations by a House-Senate conference committee--and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said his chamber acted on the assumption that “a deal is a deal.”
But House Democrats balked at the compromise on grounds that it was $10 billion higher than the bill the House had approved and did not contain many of the strict restrictions their party sought to impose on Reagan’s defense buildup, including procurement reforms and the elimination of some weapons systems.
“It’s a complete sellout,” said Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.), who added that the words “sellout” and “surrender” were used often to describe the compromise during a closed-door Democratic caucus Tuesday.
The House delay was the first direct fallout from Reagan’s decision, announced Monday, to reject a 1986 budget compromise put forth by Senate Republicans. House Democrats argued that to pass the defense bill without an overall spending agreement would “send the wrong signal” to the White House.
“The prudent thing is to wait and see if we can get a budget,” said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Although Reagan’s change of position on the budget frequently was cited as justification for delaying the House vote, House Democrats readily acknowledged that the chief reason behind it was a longstanding dispute between party liberals and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.).
‘Hurt a Little Bit’
“I think it was a personality thing against Les Aspin,” said Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.). “Les has been hurt a little bit.”
Mavroules noted that the backlash against Aspin began late last week, even before Reagan spoke out on the budget compromise.
Liberals have been upset with Aspin since he voted earlier this year in favor of Reagan’s request for fiscal 1985 MX missile funding. Many of them, including AuCoin, said that Aspin’s vote violated an earlier pledge he had made to oppose the MX.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who earlier this year opposed Aspin’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee, expressed no sympathy Tuesday for Aspin in the current situation. He told reporters that Aspin “just realized that with power and chairmanship goes responsibility.”
Time a ‘Great Curer’
But the Speaker expressed confidence that the dispute among House Democrats would blow over during the monthlong congressional recess in August and that the bill would pass in September. “Time is always a great curer,” he said.
Aspin, obviously stunned by the reaction of his fellow House Democrats, insisted that both Reagan and O’Neill had agreed to $302.5 billion in defense spending at the time he accepted it. Otherwise, he said, he would not have given up so readily on the House-approved level of $292.6 billion.
“This process is really getting to be an awful mess,” he lamented, referring to the method by which Congress sets spending levels.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the ranking Senate Democrat in the defense conference committee, agreed with Aspin’s recollection of events. “It would be very unfair to Aspin if the House complained about it,” he said.
But O’Neill insisted that House Democratic budget negotiators never agreed to the Senate-approved level of $302.5 billion. According to the Speaker, the highest defense spending figure agreed to by House Democrats during the lengthy budget negotiations has been $298 billion.
AuCoin said House Democrats also had complained that Aspin had allowed Senate negotiators to restore 17 of the 30 weapons programs killed by the House. In addition, he complained that Aspin did not insist upon a strict House-passed provision designed to close the so-called “revolving door” through which Pentagon procurement employees are hired by defense contractors.
In Aspin’s defense, Mavroules noted that the conference report would limit to 50 the number of MX missiles that Reagan can deploy in the future--half what the President wanted. “The MX is a major victory for the Democratic Party, and I think we ought to take it and run with it,” he said.